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Close Encounters of the Awkward Kind

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“Ohmigosh!” Stacey McGill squealed, her eyes lighting up as she dashed across the aisle in the crowded juniors department of Bloomingdale’s. “Look at this!”

Sam Thomas trailed after her, eyeing her skeptically as she began to paw through a pile of sweaters. “A black sweater?” he mused skeptically. “But don’t you already have a black sweater? In fact – don’t you have my black sweater?”

“This is not just a black sweater,” she informed him witheringly, finally finding one in her size and holding it up, the sleeves fluttering out of their fold. “This is the black sweater – the height of this year’s fall fashion season!”

Sam caught one of the sleeves between his fingers and examined the fabric with a thoughtful look – but, try as he might, he didn’t see what was so special about it. It looked like an ordinary run-of-the-mill sweater to him. “If you say so,” he replied with a shrug.

“I can’t believe I found one in my size,” she said excitedly, paying no heed to his lack of enthusiasm. “I have to try this on.” She glanced around, looking for the nearest fitting room. How she could find anything in this crowd was beyond him – he’d never seen Bloomingdale’s so packed.

But, he considered when she grabbed his hand and made a beeline across the department, I shouldn’t be surprised – yesterday was Labor Day, after all. If he’d learned anything from Stacey during their heretofore short relationship, it was that fashionistas kept a pretty strict calendar – one that revolved around post-holiday sales.

“This will only take a second, I promise,” she said, breaking into his bemused reverie. She turned to him, giving him a winning smile, the sort he was incapable of resisting. “Would you hold my purse? I’ll be right back.” She shoved her handbag into his hands before he could protest and disappeared into the fitting rooms.

Sam stared after her, feeling a flush of embarrassment rising up the back of his neck as her purse dangled from his fingertips. Well, this is awkward, he considered, shifting his weight from one foot to the other as he glanced around the mostly deserted space. Maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad if he was the only one there, but alas – no such luck. Another guy was lounging nearby, sitting on the corner of one of the displays with his nose buried in a book. Sam studied him for a long moment, trying to decide if it would be more awkward to just stand there in silence, or to attempt pleasant conversation.

“This must be your first time,” the stranger piped up, nearly startling Sam out of his skin.

“Huh?” he managed in response, checking the immediate urge to slap himself in the face. Smooth, Sam, he admonished himself silently. Real smooth.

The guy looked up from his book, offering Sam a friendly smile. “Don’t worry,” he assured him, nodding towards Sam’s hands. “Stick with it long enough, and you’ll be inducted into the Purse Protectors Society.”

“Are you a member?” Sam asked wryly. “Or simply a disinterested observer?”

The guy laughed. “Member since ’88,” he replied jovially, tucking his book into his messenger’s bag. “Hi, I’m Ryan,” he continued, extending his hand.

“Sam,” Sam replied, taking his hand and giving it a firm shake. “Purse watching novice.”

Ryan smiled. “Hey, we all have to start somewhere, right?” he mused with a shrug. “You’ll figure out a system soon enough.”

“What’s yours?” Sam asked, looking at him curiously. “Convincing your girlfriend to lug around a messenger’s bag?”

Ryan laughed. “I wish,” he intoned, running his fingers under the strap that crossed his chest. “Nope, this is mine – it’s big enough to hold her purse and a couple of books, just in case she wants to try on half the store.” He grinned as Sam sank down beside him, burying his face in his hands. “Hey, man, cheer up! There are some perks to this, you know.”

Sam glanced up. “Like…?”

“Bikini season,” Ryan replied with a knowing look.

Sam’s eyes widened at the thought. “Damn,” he sighed, “why can’t it be July?”

“Just think of it as something to look forward to,” Ryan chuckled.

The two lapsed into companionable silence as Sam continued to imagine how well Stacey could fill out a bikini. He’d always thought she was cute, but he’d never really had the opportunity to see her in a swimsuit. Even at Shadow Lake over the summer – any time he’d announce his presence by wolf-whistling at her, she’d just get huffy and go change.

God, I was an idiot, he thought to himself.

And yet, here he was – sitting in the juniors department of Bloomingdale’s with her purse in his hands not even three months later. Obviously, he’d done something right, so maybe he should try to exercise a little patience.

And figure out a system.

Just as he was mulling that over, two girls emerged from the fitting rooms at nearly the same time. Sam looked up, noticing from the corner of his eye that Ryan did the same, but most of his attention was focused on his girlfriend. Now that she was wearing the sweater, he understood why it was so special. At tunic length, the hem was long enough to fall over the curve of her hips. She’d belted it over the black leggings she’d worn into the store, the silver metallic finish of the belt bringing out the shimmery quality of the black fabric. Paired with her honey-blonde hair and blue eyes, she certainly cut a striking figure.

“You look great, Stace!” Sam and Ryan chorused in unison – only to look at each other in surprise.

“You know my girlfriend?” Sam asked with a frown.

Ryan lifted a brow. “I was just about to ask you the same thing,” he replied, his tone noticeably cooler than before.

Sam looked back at Stacey, his confusion growing when he saw her reflection in the mirror – she, too, looked upset, staring at the girl beside her with a fierce frown. When Sam’s gaze slid to the other girl, he nearly fell out of his seat.

“Holy shit,” he murmured under his breath, glancing from one girl to the next.

“They could be twins,” Ryan added, sounded similarly shocked.

For a moment, the four were eerily silent, each staring at the girls’ reflection in the mirror. They were the same height, had the same wavy blonde hair, shared ocean blue eyes – and were dressed in almost identical outfits. The other girl’s belt was gold, and she was wearing dark denim jeans, but those differences were so small they weren’t noticeable at first glance.

The other girl cleared her throat. “So,” she said awkwardly, “your name is Stacy too?”

Stacey nodded, narrowing her eyes slightly.

“Weird,” Stacy observed. “How do you spell it?”

“S-T-A-C-E-Y,” Stacey supplied. “You?”

“No ‘e’,” Stacy replied.

“Oh.” Stacey was quiet for a long moment, her eyes drifting back to her own reflection. “You look good in that sweater. I think it suits you.”

“Thanks,” Stacy responded, gazing at herself critically in the mirror as she tugged on the hem. “You look pretty good yourself.”

Stacey acknowledged the compliment with a nod, taking a step away from the mirror. She tossed her hair over her shoulder as she strode back into the fitting rooms. Stacy lingered at the mirror for another moment before leaving as well, pointedly returning to the fitting rooms through a different entrance.

Sam slid a glance at Ryan, meeting his mystified expression with one of his own.

“What are the odds?” Sam mused, a smile pulling at the corner of his mouth.

Ryan shrugged. “Well, they say everyone has a doppelganger somewhere on this planet,” he replied. “You have to admit, though – it’s kinda weird to meet yours in the juniors department of Bloomie’s.”

Sam was suddenly struck with a thought as he clutched the strap of Stacey’s bag. “What does her purse look like?” he asked curiously, holding up the black one that he held in his hands.

Ryan’s eyes widened as he pulled his messenger’s bag into his lap, throwing open the flap and digging inside. When he emerged with a knit purple crossbody, he and Sam breathed twin sighs of relief.

“That was close,” Sam laughed.

“It would’ve been way too far into the uncanny valley,” Ryan agreed.

Stacey appeared just then, dressed in her own clothes. She schooled her features into a pleasant expression as she approached the guys, but when she moved close enough to take custody of her purse from Sam, he noticed the tightness of her smile. With one last, silent wave to Ryan, he stood up and followed her, reaching for her hand and giving it a reassuring squeeze.

“No sweater?” he queried when he realized she was heading for the escalator empty-handed.

“No,” she replied with a shrug. “She really did look better in it.” She stepped onto the escalator, turning slightly so that she could face him. “But that’s okay,” she assured him, her expression relaxing as they moved further and further away from the juniors department. “I have better hair.”